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Bush Looking for Democracy in Post-Castro Cuba

Tuesday, 19 Feb 2008 08:26 AM

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President Bush says Cuban President Fidel Castro's decision to step down should be the start of a democratic transition on the island. Cuba's Communist party newspaper published a quote from Mr. Castro Tuesday, saying he will not accept another term as president. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns has more on Mr. Bush's reaction.

George W. Bush gestures during press conference in Kigali, Rwanda, 19 Feb 2008

President Bush says the United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty.

"I believe that the change from Fidel Castro ought to begin a period of democratic transition," the president said. "First step, of course, will be for people put in these prisons to be let out. I have met with some of the families of prisoners. It just breaks your heart to realize that people have been thrown in prison because they dared speak out."

After nearly half a century in power, Fidel Castro's decision to step down appears to open the way for his brother Raul, who has been acting president since the long-time leader's intestinal surgery two years ago.

As power changes hands in Cuba, President Bush says some people will say U.S. policy should promote stability. But Mr. Bush says that would be a mistake because political prisoners would continue to rot in detention and the human condition, in many cases, he says, would remain pathetic.

"Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections. And I mean free. And I mean fair. Not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist of as being true democracy," he said.

The president spoke in Rwanda on the third stop of a five-nation tour of Africa. At a press conference with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Mr. Bush was asked what the Cuban leader's decision means for America. He said the question should be what does it mean for Cubans?

"They're the ones put in prison because of their beliefs. They're the ones who have been denied their right to live in a free society," Mr. Bush said.

A new National Assembly was elected in January, and will meet for the first time Sunday to pick the governing Council of State, which will now include a new president.

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